S'pore's most valuable artworks

S'pore's most valuable artworks

When the National Art Gallery, Singapore opens in 2015, it will be a game changer. The opening will herald a new era of greater recognition and appreciation of South-east Asian art with displays of modern and contemporary works by the region's masters including Singapore's Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang, Indonesia's Hendra Gunawan, Malaysia's Redza Piyadasa, Vietnam's Nguyen Gia Tri, and others.

Singapore has the biggest collection of South-east Asian art in the world, with the Singapore Art Museum playing a pivotal role since 1996 in strengthening that collection.

And it is set to become even bigger and stronger, with Eugene Tan having officially stepped into his role as the director of the National Art Gallery, Singapore, two months ago.

We spoke to the 43-year-old about his vision for the museum.

And we also asked him and his team to handpick some of the most historically significant artworks that will take pride of place in the new museum.

The list they've compiled is sterling.

BT: Visual art appreciation is nascent in Singapore. Few people have a knowledge of art history.

Is that something the museum hopes to redress?

Dr Tan: Knowledge of art history is lacking in Singapore. It is not taught in any of our universities. So we see our role as presenting the art history of South-east Asia in a very comprehensive manner.

We have two permanent galleries, one focusing on Singapore and the other focusing on South-east Asia. And we'll also have other galleries for special exhibitions that will help examine the relationship between South-east Asian art and global art.

South-east Asian art is very under-researched, and I think that's one disadvantage that needs to be addressed. We don't have history to help us understand where we are today in terms of art. So we hope to address that not just by the artworks shown, but also through the research that our curators are currently engaged in.

BT: A number of young museum directors (those in their late 30s or early 40s) around the world have been credited for making museums cooler and hipper. You're a young museum director yourself.

Can we expect the same from you?

Dr Tan: The museum can be an imposing place for some, so we're always looking for ways to make it less so. We'll have restaurants, cafes and shops - a lifestyle component - and we have site-specific works that'll confront people with contemporary art in public places. We'll use books, reproductions and multimedia devices to get people excited about art ... We're looking into it.

BT: How open will the museum be to potentially controversial content? Will we ever see, say, nude performances a la Marina Abramovich's seminal show at the Museum of Modern Art? Just two years ago, Singapore Art Museum tampered with the work of artist Simon Fujiwara because it had gay content. Fujiwara didn't like that. Artists obviously won't be reined in...

Dr Tan: And that's why we love them, right? But I think it's the role of curators and museums to mediate the relationship between the artist and the audiences and to understand the sensitivities of the viewing public. So I don't see it so much as a form of control - a good curator knows how to negotiate the line between what the public is ready for and what the artwork is trying to express.

BT: Shouldn't an "Adults Only" warning label suffice, as it does in top museums?

Dr Tan: If there's questionable or offensive content, then we'll warn the public, and it's their choice whether they want to see it.

BT: Hong Kong is developing a major museum for modern and contemporary art, the M+ in West Kowloon. Do you see it as National Art Gallery's biggest rival in the region?

Dr Tan: We're aware of them. But what we are developing for National Art Gallery is what we feel is right for us, and we're not really looking at others in terms of competition. In fact, Lars (Nittve, director of M+) and I know each other very well, and we're in discussions to collaborate with each other.

BT: Finally, do you collect art yourself?

Dr Tan: If "collect" implies a strategic way of going about it, then I'm afraid not.

BT: Let me put it differently: Do you buy art for your home?

Dr Tan: Whenever I have some spare money - which is not very often (laughs) - I buy a lot of works by young Singaporean artists.

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